Student privacy compromised by directory

directory

Due to a flaw in the Whitworth directory, for an unknown period of time students were able to log in to the faculty-level directory. The information systems department solved the glitch Friday, May 3.

On the faculty/staff version, when searching for students, a student could find the usual name, phone number, email, student box number and major of almost any student in the system.  In addition, unlike the student version, the faculty/staff version allowed access to students’ dorm name and room number. They could also find phone and home addresses for professors.

Tom Ryan, who works in information systems, said the access capability was not intentional and that they do not know how long the problem existed.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), “schools may disclose, without consent, ‘directory’ information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance,” according to the Department of Education.

A subsequent clause states that schools must tell parents and students about directory information, and allow them a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information.

Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (by special letter, inclusion in a PTA bulletin, student handbook or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.

Records manager William Carruthers said the information on a student’s profile is often obtained through the student’s application, where it is downloaded to a student’s record.  If  students make any changes, they can submit an address change form that will update new cell phone, home phone and address information.

Carruthers confirmed that no exists law that requires them to prevent students from having access to other students’ room locations.

“There’s nothing in the regulation that says we have to keep that private,” Carruthers said.  “Having said that, that doesn’t mean you have to publish everything you know, but it does mean that FERPA allows us to give a student’s address out, unless that student has placed a directory hold on their record.”

The university sends out an advisory to students through email each year, giving them direction on how to opt out of the directory before the information goes up on the intranet, Carruthers said.  Students can also submit a directory hold request at any time during the year. Making said request, however, comes at a cost.

After the request is processed, the student will not appear in a search on either the student or the faculty/staff version of the campus directory. The downside is that a student who submits a directory hold request becomes ‘invisible’ from a third party’s standpoint.  This means that students can not have their name printed on the Dean’s List or in the Commencement program at graduation, according to the directory hold request form.

“If in fact they do this, if somebody like a third party, like a prospective employer or somebody from student loans would contact us and ask for information, we’re going to say, ‘We don’t have anything on that student’ so it can be very detrimental for a student to put this on if they don’t realize the ramifications,” Carruthers said.  “Now it’s very important, too, because if you have somebody who has a stalking issue or an ex-boyfriend who’s trying to get in touch with some of our coeds on campus, we definitely want them to have the ability to hide their information. So, it is useful and necessary, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a catch-all just to get stuff off the intranet just because it really has far-reaching effects.”

Disclosing room information is not something resident assistants and resident directors generally do.

Ballard, Cornerstone and McMillan resident director Matthew Baker said that resident assistants are told not to give out information such as room and cell phone numbers.

“Not all RA’s know who is a student and who is not so it is a safer bet to say if that person is someone you don’t know, it’s better to not give out that information, as far as what room someone lives in.  [This is] also to protect that student’s wishes as far as, ‘Yes, this is my room but I don’t want just anyone knowing that I live here,’” Baker said.  “There can be some parts in some person’s story in history that makes them want to be more private about that and so we want RA’s to respect that privacy before just giving it away without someone giving you that consent.”

Due to the far-reaching ramifications of a directory hold request, the question turns to the possibility of a more selective system in which students could pick and choose which specifics aspects of their personal information were displayed on the directory. However, administrators said it’s not that simple.

Interim Provost Barbara Sanders said that while picking and choosing may be conducive to a student’s preference, the question is whether that process is even an option in this system.

“While [all options in regards to student profile information] are probably legitimate options, one needs to consider the time and resources involved in being able to make those play out,” Sanders said.

Registrar Beverly Kleeman said the administration is working with the data warehouse to see if they can prevent student phone numbers from being shown if the student does not want it to appear there.

“Bill [Carruthers] has had people ask him about that in the past and all he’s been able to say is that they could put the directory hold on, because that’s really the only capability that we have right now to block that phone number,” Kleeman said.  However, Kleeman said that the directory hold blocks everything, and due to the ramifications, the hold is not the ideal way to handle it.

Connor Soudani Staff Writer

Contact Connor Soudani at csoudani16@my.whitworth.edu

 

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